A couple of years ago one of my friends bought a country house. It’s on about ½ acre of land 20 min from town, The house is older, and because of its age and the way the house has been expanded over the years by various owners, it has a quirky layout. It’s the kind of house you have to love, the kind that has to click with you. For most people, it would be too old and too odd to consider purchasing.
My friend, the owner of the oddball home, and myself are like many mid-career professionals with individual contributor jobs in that we are not content with our current work and life trajectory. We both long for something more in our life and that is one of the topics that we bond over. To this end, when we get together we often talk about entrepreneurship and potential opportunities we have uncovered. Specifically we talk about options for moving away and starting some cool business in an exotic locale. In our conversations, one of the points I bring up as a challenge we should consider, is her ability to quickly sell that house. She never thinks it would be a problem. She always assumes that she can easily rent her house to cover the mortgage. Not being emotionally connected to the property my analysis is a bit more analytical. I don’t think it’ll be that easy. There aren’t that many people who would be attracted to a quirky older home. Additionally, there are many pitfalls to renting. Adding to that, my friend has no safety net of significant cash reserves, this is something that’s an absolute necessity when becoming a first time landlord as usually there are many expensive lessons that are learned no matter how much you prepare and research.
That first story is philosophical in that it hasn’t happened. I have one that’s practical in that I witnessed it first hand. I have a friend who quit his job rather abruptly. He left for a number of reasons. Part of it was because he was passed over for a promotion he was promised by those who should have had a very heavy influence in the selection of the new boss. Another part of it was because of simple burn out. He had been at the job for many years and was exhausted at dealing with a system that was, by design, stacked against his stated mission within the organization. When he left the local and national economy was experiencing unprecedented low unemployment levels. He assumed getting reemployed at his existing level would be fairly easy and quick. He also assumed that his calculations for his final check would match that of his now-former employer. His last check was about half of what he should have gotten according to his own calculation. This wasn’t really surprising from anybody looking in from the outside. I believe anyone who’s seen this sort of thing knows that the company almost never pays what is expected in an abrupt departure. He should have known better.
The bigger miscalculation was all about his job hunt after he left. He assumed because unemployment was low and he has never been without a job for more than a few weeks that he would easily be able to find a new position. I believe that his perception was skewed from when he was younger. He was no longer a kid going from a job waiting tables to another similar job. He had been at this organization for many years and had worked his way into a purple squirrel style individual contributor position for which there were few open positions that matched his skill set and professional network. The bottom line is that he either had to wait until there was an opening that fit him, which would take a year or more, or he’d have to hit the great reset switch and start at the bottom in another organization or career.
For my own part, over the years I have made many large career related assumptions that turned out not to be true. I got an advanced information technology degree which I assumed would quickly get me a community college teaching job. I had no idea how rare the full time jobs teaching are. When I decided to open up a business, I had assumed that my business plan, as rock solid as it was, would get me the bank funding I wanted at the time. I learned quickly that wasn’t the case. I’m guilty of this even today, when I started writing my book a few years ago, I generally assumed it would be easy to complete and easy to get published. Neither have turned out to be true.
In all of these steps, or mis-steps as the case may be, the unifying theme was making erroneous career related assumptions. It’s not that my professional friends or I are fools or don’t know how to put together a plan. As professionals we do know to keep a realistic goal in mind, it’s just that we often fall into the trap of making assumptions on the details that may be needed to get to that end. Anyone who has managed any type of project will know that the road to success is usually filled with details. In the first case with my homeowner friend, the assumption included moving to the country without a quantifiable understanding of the rental market size for that style of house. It also assumed that renting would be easy under her current financial reality. If she did some research into what cash reserves are needed to be a landlord or what the rental market is for old quirky houses, she’d be much more prepared if she ever did pull the trigger and go sell mojitos at a beach bar in the Virgin Islands. In the second case, my friend who quit his job should have done some research beyond just listening to acquaintances and professional colleagues say “Oh, I’ll hire you” which I believe was the genesis of his assumptions. In my situation there was a ton of research I could have done to get a realistic view of what to expect in my career efforts.
Career assumptions make no practical sense but are completely understandable if you look at the fact that we are humans and we often react more emotionally than logically. We live in a complex world. No matter what you aspire to, the details can get overwhelming, so sometimes we skip them and fill in the blanks with these assumptions. Assumptions in your career are like other assumptions in your life in that, unless you are highly experienced in the area you are making your predictions in, they tend not to go as planned. With other areas, say if you make an incorrect assumption that the TV at Best Buy will fit into your entertainment center, the best case is you have to make a trip back to the store to return the TV. The worst case is that you are out a few hundred bucks. In the scope of life, neither has that long lasting of an affect.
It’s very different when you make assumptions about your career because those decisions can have lifelong impact. Career decisions impact money, they impact how much time you have every day and they impact other areas of life related to work like retirement and healthcare,. They even have an affect on the things that are supposed to be unrelated to our jobs but that work usually has indirect influence over like personal relationships. Making assumptions about your career really is making an assumption about everything that intersects work and life. Careers also have an inertia to them in that career steps are interrelated. This means assumptions about career choices are potentially much much much bigger than other longer term decisions you can make in life. For instance, poorly made assumptions about the brand of vehicle your going to buy or the type of housing you choose can usually be changed more easily than some major career trajectories. This means we have to carefully manage the career assumptions we make.
Some Best Practices Managing Assumptions
Whatever your career thoughts are, you should research them thoroughly. I wish I did this more, and as I get more seasoned with life, I do, but I always feel like I don’t do it thoroughly enough. The problem is that research, if done right, takes a long time. But like most things in life, the ounces of prevention prevents pounds of problems. You just have to have enough fortitude to understand your motivational bubble may burst when you learn the real challenges associated with your desired path.
There are several ways to avoid making assumptions about your career trajectory. One modern way to do this is a lab exercise I initially developed for my students when I am introducing them to careers in a chosen field. I have them do career research based upon real profiles on LinkedIn. I always start by introducing them to the job titles and associated salaries. I’ve learned showing a job that pays well over six figures is a great way to get community college students to sit up in their seats and pay attention to the lesson. Then I have them research the work history of people on LinkedIn with that specific title. I have them describe to me the career moves, credentials, locations, and timeframe for each career step. The lesson is a great way to get students to start thinking long term, but it’s also a great way for a seasoned person to realize exactly what they have to do to get to a specific level.
There is intangible information that can help avoid making assumptions about your career. You can learn these priceless nuggets of information through copious amounts of ‘old school’ networking and conversations with lots of different people in the field. The value of this information is virtually priceless. The right degree, the career history, and the generally accepted knowledge may set up what any person would consider to be a reasonable expectation, but a conversation could shed light on an unspoken and little known reality. I always think about the “In the Club” mentality from my own experience. It’s an example that I have often cited here in this blog and on my podcast. My example comes from the Information Technology world, where a computer science degree is supposed to immediately allow someone to easily land a job with a marque organization like Microsoft, IBM, or Oracle. The reality is that those companies mostly hire through staffing agencies and when they do directly hire for a full time position, they generally have an unspoken preference that only talent poached from other massive IT firms will get hired to be in their club. The computer science degree doesn’t land the $125K / year job with Apple, it lands the $60K / year job with the IT staffing agency. For someone making in the forties, this doesn’t seem so bad. But if you quit your $75K job thinking now that night school is done and you have your CIS degree and a fifty thousand dollar raise is immediately in your future, you will be shocked that you may have to take a cut in pay because the only organization willing to hire you is ABC Tech Staffing Inc. Making connections and getting this information early can avoid all of that runaround fueled by incorrect assumptions.
Be Analytical Beyond What Readily Available Information Tells You
This is based on research, but it’s not just information gathering, it’s information analysis. It works for both getting a job at a new company and for business startups. Analysis is very hard to do when you are vested emotionally because to not make assumptions you have to be brutally honest. You can’t put your faith in positive thoughts and hope all goes well. This is where the potential help from an independent third party can come in. For example, there is SCORE, the Service Core of Retired Executives who advise small business people for free. I met with one and they cautioned me on my grand plan to open a brick and mortar travel agency. The SCORE advisor identified several problems with my business plan. I mostly ignored the advice, and learned the hard way a year later.
It is still possible to do this without the third party. You just have to ask all the questions you can think of, and understand that there are others you haven’t thought of yet. Sitting at a local watering hole on a cold NC winter night talking about all the things we will need to do for our bar on a white sand beach in the caribbean is fun, but not realistic analysis. What are the number of bars? How many fail? What is required for operating a bar on XYZ caribbean island? What is the political climate like? How will you be financed or keep from losing your investment? This is when you are beyond a business plan. This is the realm of immersion. In the beach bar example, to do it right would require a sabbatical spent on a caribbean island working at beach bars and throughout the supply chain. You have to work with people who have tried and failed and those that have tried and succeeded. This is very difficult, but not impossible, to do. It’s not just the time and money commitment, the hardest part is a willingness to be open to hearing lots of things that you don’t like. This level of immersion in any career related goal or endeavor will absolutely eliminate almost all faulty assumptions. Disclaimer: There are always false assumptions that can never be predicted by anyone. I’d put the once in 100 year storm that blows away all the beach bars in this category. Another one that many of us have experienced is the utter devastation of the housing market before the great recession. Few thought that AAA securities actually weren’t AAA when you consider how heavily regulated that industry is. If you were planning to open up a mortgage brokerage, the optics on the funding stream for the mortgages were completely removed from the service provider level. No matter how much immersion you planned in that part of the industry, it would have been impossible to realize how risky that line of business was going to be.
A Few Rules for success
There are rules for success that will help get you to the career goal you wish to get to.
1. Don’t ever be so confident that you “Bet it all”.
I got lucky with this one. I tried to take out a huge loan to start my own business. Looking back on it bankruptcy would have been part of my life experiences if I were to have convinced a lender to give me the money I wanted and thought I needed to succeed.
2. Don’t leave career A if you don’t have career B already in hand.
This should go without saying, but even the brightest of us will see a ‘grass is greener’ pasture and it’s hard to not assume a positive outcome with a career move. No matter what someone promises you, no matter what their decision making ability is, there are always many factors that get in the way. We’ve all heard the phrase “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. We’ve all heard it because it’s a universal truth. I have to admit that it continues to surprise me how many people just quit without another job like my friend, who I referenced earlier, did when they quit without really having a plan. My friend is older and I’ve known several seasoned professionals who do quit without a concrete plan but I don’t see this too often with the mid-career set. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find that younger people tend to abruptly quit more often. I guess they will learn.
3. Understand it’s never as easy as it seems, even after doing the initial research.
Let’s take a look at the medical industry for this one. It may seem very easy to make a reasonable assumption that if you get your nursing degree and your license, then as a registered nurse you will easily be able to get a great job. Unfortunately, the odds of the first nursing job being a great one are slim. Nursing is actually very broad of a category as it’s a foundation credential. Many jobs require an RN even if their isn’t actually patient service provisioning as part of the job. What I mean by that is that you may need your RN to sell medical devices, or to have a job providing phone assistance to medical equipment vendors, or even run a medical office. Usually the harder nursing jobs are the ones that are constantly losing nurses. These more difficult, and often lower paid, positions are the jobs that are always open for the next budding nurse fresh with their license. It was really easy to read a nursing school pamphlet or to talk to a hospital recruiter and assume that your investment in time and money will lead to a great job right out of school. I would argue that several conversations with several seasoned nurses would have helped eliminate any erroneous assumptions on the nursing path.
4. Don’t give up just because you realize how hard your career aspirations are, remember activity begets success.
People want to be a part of someone who is on a reasonable journey. If your claiming your quitting your accountant’s job because you know your going to be recruited as a vice president at a large company, I doubt you’ll see much support,but if your more realistic in your aspirations, then you’ll see more support than you may at first expect. No matter if it’s building a company, working out, or trying to get to that next level in their career, generally people want to be a part of something that looks like it’ll turn out for the better. That means you’ll get lots of tips, connections, and resources that may not have been readily available if it wasn’t known that you were trying to make a positive career move.
We all make assumptions. We do this because if we don’t make them, then we need complete information. Complete usually equals highly detailed, and I said, details are hard. This means we do the human thing. Rather than fill in all the blanks we make the best guess of what should go in them. I have students who guess on tests all the time. When they make the wrong selection, they just get a few points off. Hopefully when all the questions are graded they got more of their guesses right than wrong and they pass the test. Sometimes they fail and their grade goes down and they have to repeat the class. That’s school. Unfortunately it’s not the same in your career. The difference is that careers don’t last 16 weeks like a college class. They last decades and we really don’t want to have to fail and repeat them from the beginning again. As human beings we only work for so many years and having to reset isn’t a good place to be if your well into your career. The easiest way to avoid this is to, well, do your homework. Like the kids in my class, if you study hard, when you go to test yourself with a great new career trajectory, you will do well. Assuming you do all this, you’ll more than likely succeed, so my last bit of advice is this: Remember to save some of your new money, because you’ll need to go buy a zero turn mower to cut all that beautiful greener grass!